Denim is now a part of everyday life in most countries around the world. It is worn by people of all ages, with products available for a few dollars up to several hundred. In fact, it is one of the most versatile materials in fashion. Where did denim begin, and how has it become so popular? What about denim and the plus-size woman?
What is Denim?
Denim is a durable and sturdy textile made from cotton. What distinguishes it from other types of fabric is the way it is made. Denim is made using twill, which is a type of textile weave. In this weave, horizontal threads, known as the weft, pass under two or more vertical threads, known as the warp. This produces the diagonal ribs (or pattern) that we know from denim products of today.
The traditional blue colour of denim comes from the dyeing process. In this process, the vertical threads are dyed indigo blue before weaving while the horizontal threads are left white. This is what makes denim blue on one side and white on the other.
The name denim is believed to come from a serge fabric made in France. Serge is a type of twill fabric made from a blend of wool and silk. As was the custom at the time, this fabric was named after the place where it was invented - Nimes in France. Therefore, it was known as serge de Nimes. While the fabric was not made from cotton, it was produced in a similar way as denim. The "de Nimes" part of the name is thought to be where the word denim comes from.
The Invention of Jeans
Cotton fabrics made using similar methods of production as the denim of today are believed to have been around since the 1600s. They probably originated in England before being widely produced in the US.
In the 1800s in the US, denim was used by tailors to make clothing. One such tailor was a man named Jacob W. Davis. He was born in Latvia and emigrated to the US in 1854. He worked as a tailor in New York and San Francisco before going to Canada to pan for gold. He got married in Canada and came back to the US where he eventually opened another tailor shop in Reno, Nevada.
In 1871, the wife of a woodworker asked Davis to make her husband a pair of pants because he was too big for factory-made clothes.
Yes, the first ever pair of jeans was plus size!
The woman's special request for the tailor was to make the pants strong. While making the pants from denim, Davis saw some copper rivets on a table in his shop. He used them to strengthen the parts of pants most likely to rip - the pockets and fly. The modern pair of jeans was born.
Soon, everyone wanted a pair of Davis' extra durable pants, and he made about 200 pairs over an 18-month period. He couldn't keep up with demand, and he was afraid someone would steal his idea. The problem was he couldn't afford the cost of getting a patent, so he wrote to the man who supplied him with denim fabric. That man was Levi Strauss.
German born Strauss was an entrepreneur who moved to the US in 1847 to work in the family's dry goods business. He decided to follow the gold rush; so in 1853, he moved to San Francisco and shortly after started the company Levi Strauss & Co.
In 1872, Strauss got a letter from Jacob Davis with a business proposition. Davis asked Strauss to help him get a patent, and in exchange, Strauss would receive some manufacturing rights that would let him produce jeans. Strauss saw the size of the opportunity, so he agreed. The patent was granted shortly after, production was ramped up, and the modern jeans industry was born.
Denim jeans increased in popularity in the decades that followed their invention, but they were still largely used as a durable item of clothing made for working people. Most were styled as overalls, and there were designs for both men and women. Miners wore them as did construction workers working on the railways and farm workers and cowboys.
Jeans were becoming more visible. They were worn by actors in movies, then soldiers started to wear them while on leave in World War II. This led to the formation of new jeans manufacturers once the war ended, including Lee and Wrangler.
Then, in the 1950s, James Dean wore jeans in a movie, and the shift from working clothes to popular fashion began.
Pop Culture and Demin
James Dean made jeans famous among the youth of the US and beyond when he wore them in the movie Rebel without a Cause. This caused a bit of an uproar, with jeans becoming a symbol of the new youth subculture. Many schools, theatres, and other public places reacted by banning jeans.
Then, in the 1960s, jeans became a favourite item of clothing in hippie fashion. Denim, including denim jackets, was also now a regular feature in movies and was worn by many big movie stars on screen and off, including Marilyn Monroe. The move of jeans into the mainstream was now unstoppable.
Rock bands wore denim, as did punk bands in the 1970s. It was around this time that the first denim skirts were mass produced followed by the first denim mini skirt in the early 1980s.
Different denim styles were becoming available. For example, a boutique retailer in New York was the first to wash jeans before selling them to make them look worn. Different colours and styles were introduced too. Boot cut jeans became bell-bottomed jeans in the 1960s and 1970s, while bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones made skinny jeans popular.
The styles of jeans available in the shops changes with the fashion of the day. For example, baggy jeans became popular in the 1990s with the influence of rap artists. This was replaced again by skinnier fits in the 2000s. Different washes, colours, and styles have also been popular at various points in the fashion history.
Types of Denim
There are a number of types of denim available, each producing a different effect. Some of the more popular types include:
- Raw denim - This refers to whether the denim is washed or not. Raw denim is not washed, so the colour of the jeans will fade the longer they are worn. This is a fashion style that many people go for.
- Washed denim - As opposed to raw denim, washed denim is washed before being sold. This makes them look worn or distressed. They are also often softer.
- Selvage denim - This type of denim is normally raw, so it is not washed. The key characteristic is that it has clean edges that prevent the denim from unravelling. This makes selvage denim particularly durable.
- Stretch denim - Stretch denim is made from a combination of cotton and another fabric, usually Spandex, to make it stretch and give the jeans a more comfortable and practical skin-tight fit.
Styles of Denim
There is a huge number of styles of denim jeans available, with manufacturers and fashion designers regularly coming up with new options. Here are some of the more common styles of denim for women:
- Mom jean - Sits high on the waist with a straight drop to taper at the ankles
- Fisherman jean - Large cuff at the bottom
- Prospector jean - Very high waist
- Boyfriend jean - An oversized, relaxed style of jean
- Girlfriend jean - A more fitted version of the boyfriend jean
- Relaxed tapered jean - Like the boyfriend jean but with a more pronounced taper at the ankles
- Jogger - An elastic waist and baggy fit
- Ultra-skinny jean – Fits like a second skin
- Classic skinny - Snug fit from top to bottom
- Traditional straight leg - Has the same diameter at the top as at the bottom
- Cropped straight leg - Straight fit but cut above the ankles
- Bell bottom jean – Has a big bell at the lower leg and ankle
- Kick flare - A traditional fit down to the knees before a slight flare lower down
- Bootcut jean - Widen at the bottom
- Distressed - Has deliberate tears
- Patchwork - Has deliberate patches
- Moto - Skinny fit with reinforced knees
- Slim trouser jean - Fitted like a traditional trouser
- Wide leg trouser jean - Extra width in the legs
- Basic wide leg - Sits low on the waist with wide legs
- Culotte jeans - Wide leg fit that is cut between the knee and ankle
- Cropped wide leg - Baggy leg cut above the ankle
There are also a number of washes. These include:
- Acid wash
- Dirty wash
- Hand sanding
- New vintage tatter
- Rinse wash
- Whisker wash
Jeans and the Plus Size Women
As with most types of fashion, plus size women face particular difficulties when it comes to buying jeans. This is largely due to fewer options being available. Problems that curvy women often face include jeans that fit their waist but not their thighs or jeans that don't sit high enough on the waist. Finding jeans that are stylish, that fit over wide hips, and that generally accentuate a woman’s curves continues to be a challenge.
That said, there are some good brands that sell plus size jeans. These include:
- City Chic
- 17 Sundays
- Embody Denim
In general, the fashion industry and large manufacturers are waking up to the importance of providing stylish and attractive clothing for plus size women. In fact, it is not just plus size women that the fashion industry is waking up to. Women come in all shapes and sizes, and most of them face difficulties finding jeans designed for them. This includes petite women, tall women, and more. The fact that there is now more choice when it comes to jeans, regardless of your size or shape, is beneficial to everyone, even though there is more that can be done.
There are practical benefits of having great quality clothes that fit, but there are also mental and societal benefits when a woman is able to express herself with clothes. This is particularly relevant for jeans, as they are a staple in most women’s wardrobes. This change is driven by innovative smaller brands that are often better at catering to the market, but the overall trend is moving towards more choice, which is good for everyone.